Military & Aerospace

1962 Sino-Indian War: The Occupation of Tibet by China and the American Secret War
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Issue Book Excerpts: The Crimson Chinar | Date : 12 Nov , 2015

The American Secret War in Tibet

The CIA’s secret war for the Shangri La, codenamed ‘Op ST CIRCUS,’ reads like a Greek tragedy. In response to the Tibetans request for support for an ‘armed struggle’ and a possible ‘asylum’ for the Dalai Lama, the Americans responded with alacrity. The US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson sent Top Secret missives to the American Ambassadors at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Thailand and India to sound out prospects for the ‘asylum.’ However, there was a dichotomous angle that needed resolution before physical aid could be proffered. At that time the Americans were actively supporting the Nationalist Chinese in Taiwan who like the Communists Chinese held the view that Tibet was a part of the larger Chinese Empire. Hence, support to Tibet against Chinese re-occupation could not be justified, despite the desire of the Americans to embroil the Chinese on another front to facilitate their own war effort in Korea.

In keeping with the dichotomous requirement, the American Tibetan Policy concurrently operated at two levels. At the strategic level, while they accepted Chinese suzerainty over Tibet in deference to the Nationalist Chinese, they also operated at the tactical level and provided financial and material support to the rebels; obviously, this had inherent contradictions that eventually led to disaster. In accordance with this policy, the Americans promised the Dalai Lama full support and it was then left to the World War Two OSS[8]veteran, Allen Dulles, now the Deputy Director of the CIA to enact the secret guerrilla war to bleed the Chinese in Tibet. The large haul of German weapons after the World War came handy (please note the German weapons in the picture) and Tibetans were flown out and imparted training at Fort Hale on the American continent and soon the ‘Chushi Gangdruk’, which literally meant ‘four Rivers, Six Ranges’ signifying the land of Tibet became an effective guerrilla force. Sent into combat, these God fearing Khampas, Goloks and Amdowans, proved themselves as formidable fighters and they found support for their cause from the locals and the religious flock of the various Monasteries.

…it was from the Khampas merchants that the first leader revolutionary sprung up when Tashi Andrugtsang rose up to organise an armed resistance against the PLA.

The resupply was done by air drops for which the CIA used Colonel Heinie Aderholt’s Air Commandos, an elite Air Force unit that specialised in supporting CIA covert operations. The supplies physically moved from Okinawa in Japan, to Takhli in Thailand and from there the Americans overflew Indian airspace to make their drops in Tibet.[9] India was thus placed in a difficult position as China was bound to interpret the use of her air space as a hostile act. On the other hand, the consideration for the Americans was that if faced by a hostile China, India might be forced to seek help from the Soviet camp. Hence, they were naturally keen that India leans her way, rather than towards the Soviets. It was a Hobson’s choice which was forced on for both parties. The Cold War politics were peaking, as was the American sponsored secret war in Tibet.

March, 1959 was the beginning of the end for the ‘Tibetan Rebellion.’ With the insurrection intensifying and spreading to central and southern Tibet, the Dalai Lama publically threw in his lot with the rebels. Consequently, the Chinese also made this an ‘all-out war,’ which even included the physical abduction of the Dalai Lama to quash the rebellion in a single master stroke. On the other hand, apprehending danger to the Dalai Lama, the enraged Tibetans thronged the streets of Lhasa in large numbers to protect their Spiritual Leader. The Chinese retaliated to this outburst for the Dalai Lama with characteristic force and shelled the crowds. “The crisis was the turning point for Tibetan diplomacy, which for eight years had sought an accommodation with China. With no accommodation now possible, the Dalai Lama took up the standing American offer of help in getting out of Tibet.”[10]As a result, refugees poured into India by the thousands.

The safe flight of the Dalai Lama was ensured by the CIA trained Chushi Gangdruk fighters who escorted him and fought desperate rear-guard actions to keep the Chinese from frustrating their difficult trek to Tawang. The CIA kept informing Dulles on the progress via coded messages which were routed through the listening posts at Okinawa. It must be mentioned that the arduous and hard fought ordeal decimated the Tibetan guerrillas and it has been estimated that the Tibetans suffered 85,000 casualties in that month alone. This was compounded by the fact that many crossed over to India, further denuding their fighting strength in Tibet. (Many of these fighters were later inducted into the 22 Establishment under India’s R & AW and fought in the 1971 War under regular Indian Army officers – the ones who survived lead a pitiable life, without financial help nor acknowledgement of the Indian government).[11]With their backbone effectively broken, the Chinese announced on 22 March that the rebellion had been effectively crushed. Local Governments were now abolished and actions to complete the ‘liberation’ in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) were now put in place.

March, 1959 was the beginning of the end for the ‘Tibetan Rebellion.’ With the insurrection intensifying and spreading to central and southern Tibet, the Dalai Lama publically threw in his lot with the rebels.

The American actions after this point proved an embarrassment for them as became an unmitigated disaster for Tibet and for India. On one hand, the American President visited India where he expressed solidarity with India and Tibet; on the other hand, the shooting down of an American U-2 plane (aircraft based in Peshawar, Pakistan) caused the Cold War to intensify. The upshot of this episode was the cancellation of a summit meeting between President Eisenhower and Premier Nikita Khrushchev on which much hope had been placed. “Such were the politics of the Cold war era, and this turn of events had serious ramifications for the Tibetan resistance. Air drop were to be cancelled, thus no weapons or supplies were dropped in Tibet by the CIA.”[12]President Eisenhower was advised by his political well-wishers to rein in the support to the Tibetans as the backlash was bound to reflect on the forthcoming American Presidential elections.

While it was the chill of the Cold War that caused the demise of the Tibetan rebellion, it was American Cold War politics that buried the Tibetan fighters. Left in the lurch, the gritty Tibetans continued the fight, despite the death of their mercurial leader Gompo Tashi Andrugstang.[13]However, the rebellion was doomed with the drying up of material support, though the last fight of this twenty-three years rebellion took place as late as in 1974 at Mustang, very close to the Nepalese border.  Perhaps, had the Dalai Lama been involved from the start, and the Americans not have gone back on their promises, the end could have been different. Significantly, for India, the perceived collusion with America and the meddling in Tibet became the casus belli for the Chinese to teach the Indians a lesson in real politicks. The Chinese had made no secret of their disapproval of the Indian involvement and for them there was no guarantee that the situation in Tibet would not be repeated, especially now that the Dalai Lama was ‘free’ to propagate his sedition in India. The immense support for the Dalai Lama and the forward policy adapted by India around this time only reinforced their apprehensions.

Significantly, for India, the perceived collusion with America and the meddling in Tibet became the casus belli for the Chinese to teach the Indians a lesson in real politicks.


The Chinese occupation of Tibet was the litmus test of Indian diplomacy. The intension to occupy Tibet had been announced unambiguously by the CCP leadership as early as 1 January, 1950. If the Indians took note of this, there was no evidence of anticipatory actions that she undertook; in fact, the only statements to come out were once the PLA had physically entered Tibet. This by itself is a lesson for emerging India. Paradoxically, the Indian stance was one of embarrassing contradictions.

On one hand India was seen to be bending backwards to avoid confrontation with China, while on the other, the Indians did get involved in facilitating the CIA in fomenting trouble in Tibet, albeit indirectly, though that’s not how it would have be seen by Peking. Notwithstanding, the failure of the Indian diplomacy to ensure continuation of autonomy in Tibet was to cost India dearly. Not only did it lead to the war in 1962, but despite the half a century that have gone by, very little has been resolved with China.

Tibet as a strategic buffer has been lost and India continues to be host to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and for the large Tibetan Diaspora, while the borders remain as undefined as they had remained for the centuries.


[1] Lal John, p-6-7, Aksai Chin and the Sino-Indian Conflict, Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1989. As per the writer, Hunza in present day Gilgit-Baltistan, had traditionally been playing both sides. Besides paying his annual tribute to the Maharaja of Kashmir, he was also paying tribute to the Chinese Emperor through the Taotai (Military and Administrative Chinese Head) at Kashgar. The case of Hunza was peculiar as while the feudatory was located south of the Karakorum’s and undeniably in Kashmir, the Mir had the rights from the Chinese of collection of taxes and grazing in the trans-Karakoram tracts of Tughdambash Pamir, as well as the Shaksam and Raksgam valleys.

[2]Some reports give this figure as low as 20,000.

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[3]The Chinese behavior with the Indian Prisoners, though inappropriate initially, was to become exemplary later. The officers were especially singled out for VIP treatment as narrated by a Lieutenant Colonel who had been taken prisoner along with Brigadier Dalvi. Despite not being a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, China observed the mandated protocol.

[4] The British in 1914 had divided Tibet informally as ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer.’ Amdo and Kham being contiguous to China were added to Inner (Chinese) Tibet.  It was only to Outer Tibet (British) that China was prepared to grant some measure of autonomy. The de-jure boundary as given above coincided with the Inner and Outer Tibetan boundaries drawn by Lord McMahon in Shimla in 1914.

[5]The Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom) was ordained as the Tibetan Spiritual Head in 1940, at the age of five.

[6]Maxwell Neville, p-70, India’s China War, Natraj Publishers, Dehra Dun, 1970. The linkage to the security of China is significant. The Chinese had always been threatened by the English since due to the terrain, Tibet was better linked to India. It was a result of this that all supplies for Tibet went routed from India rather than from China. The meagre supplies that made their way to the PLA after 1951 were also routed through India

[7] Babayeva Yuliya, p-17, quoting Andrugtsang in The Khampa Uprising: Tibetan resistance Against Chinese Invasion, Pace University, as available at, 8 May, 2006.

[8] The Office of Strategic Services was the predecessor of the CIA. This was formed in the Second World War to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines. Amongst other activities, OSS helped arm, train and supply resistance movements in Asia which had also included Mao’s Red Army, Viet Minh, KMT, Kachins and the Tibetans.

[9]Sonam Tenzing, A Cold war in Shangri La-The CIA in Tibet –Where Tibetans write as available at –CIA.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Gulati Sumegha, Forget OROP, Tibetan War Veterans aren’t even getting pensions, October 30, 2015, as posted on the net.

[12] Babayeva Yuliya, p-25, The Khampa Uprising: Tibetan resistance Against Chinese Invasion, Pace University, as available at, 8 May, 2006.

[13]The Autobiography of Angstrang has been since translated in English and is available. A notable omission made by the leader is that there is no reference in his book of CIA’s help and their involvement and might be intentional.

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2 thoughts on “1962 Sino-Indian War: The Occupation of Tibet by China and the American Secret War

  1. If Chinese were not acting the way it is doing right now, from Nepal to the seas, and the constant ransacking of the land, we would, could have believed they were good boys!
    However, seeing how they treat the world, people, including their own, they make it much easier to KNOW THE TRUTH of their PEACEFUL LIBERATION, with a minimum of ONE MILLION KILLED, and the land destroyed, ransacked including PANDA BEARS. Indeed, anyone still believes there were still wildlife left in the china land before they grabbed those in pristine land of snows?? A joke! Interesting piece but as justified as Putin and Crimea. Sanctions for one, big business deals of junk stuff for the other.

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